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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Amy Eilberg

How will this Passover Seder be different from all other Passover Seders?

I hear many people asking, with distress, about how we will manage the Passover seder this year. So much feels different right now, and desperately sad, fraught and risky.

There have always been many types of people at the seder table, guests with their own particular views and ways of communicating. (Think about the “Four Children” of the haggadah.) But this year, some people may feel that someone else at the table will arrive with the rhetorical version of a loaded gun. That is because of how tender and pained we all feel and because of the furious, polarized time in which we live, when so much language and logic is weaponized to inflict harm.

There are two very different central themes in the haggadah. The first: “And this is what sustained our ancestors and sustains us. For not only one (leader/government) arose and tried to destroy us, but in every generation there are those who try to destroy us, and God saves us from their hands.” The second: “In every generation, each of us must see ourselves as if we ourselves were liberated from Egypt.”

For some, the first sentence contains the seder’s key message: that in every generation, people have hated and sought to destroy the Jews, and only through God’s help have we survived. (In my experience, the latter part of the sentence often feels less salient in non-Orthodox homes.) To put it more simply, “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” This year, post-Oct. 7, there is nothing remotely funny about this. There are likely to be people at all of our seders who are suffering over the horrific attack on Oct. 7 and the terrifying surge in antisemitism ever since. This passage in the haggadah is more pertinent than ever.

For others, the second sentence has always been most central: the declaration that, as Jews, we must always remember what it was like to be oppressed. Therefore we must always champion the needs of the marginalized and the persecuted in our own time and place. For such Jews (my family included), this message is the very heart of the seder and is the central mission of our lives as Jews.

But this year, as a young friend recently told me, we have a problem. “Usually the haggadah is about us, the Jews, as the oppressed,” he said. “This year, in the midst of the war in Gaza, we are the oppressor.”

Many of us will have people at our seder tables who agree with this young man that we/Israelis are acting oppressively against the people of Gaza. At the same seder tables, there will likely be people who are profoundly offended by the image of Israelis (in Gaza or anywhere) as oppressors.

How do we encourage robust conversation at the seder about what is on all of our minds and in all of our hearts without descending into relational warfare at the seder table?

I offer the following suggestions:

Host preparation. If you are leading the seder, write to your guests in advance and acknowledge the painful period we find ourselves in, and the likelihood that there may be strong disagreements at the table. Make it clear that you hope for robust and honest conversation — not awkward and fearful avoidance — about Israel and Palestine (along with the more general issues of freedom and liberation that lie at the heart of the seder).

Convey that you want to talk about what is real for people and, at the same time, attend to the humanity of each person at the table. Share your conviction that it is more than possible to communicate across differences in caring and productive ways and that such communication can actually build relationships as well as contribute to everyone’s learning.

Guest preparation. As a guest at a seder, take some time (in the midst of your preparations for the holiday) to clarify your intentions as a conversation partner at the seder table. Remind yourself that the purpose of conversation will not be to persuade or browbeat people whose beliefs differ from your own. Commit to being honest about your own beliefs and also respectful and kind toward others at the table. Promise yourself that you will seek to engage in rigorous conversation that will contribute to relationships, not destroy them.

Conversation as spiritual practice. Prepare yourself to approach the seder conversation as spiritual practice, not just a time to blow off steam about the latest outrages you have read or heard. Sacred conversation is a discipline that includes clarifying intention, monitoring how much time and space you take up and relating to others seriously and respectfully as whole human beings, including amid disagreement.

Empathy and kindness. Whether you will be at a seder with loved ones or new friends, prioritize caring relationships. In this way, the seder can be a time for relationship-building and peacemaking, even amid a world at war. Remember that many of the people you are sharing seder with have been in great pain since Oct. 7, regardless of their particular views. Let Passover, above all, be a time when we offer comfort and care to one another.

Silence and self-care. Be prepared to hold your tongue if you get highly frustrated and dysregulated. Contrary to popular belief, silence does not imply agreement. It simply means you do not want to pour more kerosene on a raging fire. If you cannot stay in productive conversation, excuse yourself for a quick trip to the bathroom or kitchen.

Practicing curiosity. The seder is a night for questions, learning and deepened understanding. Commit yourself to learning at least one thing that you hear from a perspective different from your own. Be prepared to ask the profound question, as the much-maligned “wicked” child asks in the haggadah, “What does this mean to you?”

May this Passover be a time for building relationships and enhancing learning, even in this very difficult time. May we share important conversations rooted in this moment in Jewish history and may we all be nourished by our beautiful rituals and prayers. And by next year, may we see a world at peace.

An earlier version of this post appeared in the JWeekly, under the title, "How to Talk about the Elephant in the Room at This Year's Seder."

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